Republican leaders of Congress — House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, et al — claim they can steer the nation away from hurtling over the fiscal cliff without enacting the higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans that President Obama seeks.
Great. Let them show Americans how they will do that.
Of course, that will require a plan, with details and dollar figures, not merely reheated campaign slogans that voters emphatically rejected last week. It will require anti-tax radicals among House and Senate Republicans to allow their leaders to negotiate.
If GOP lawmakers reject such specificity in favor of continued bluster and blackmail, they will forfeit the right to be taken seriously as negotiating partners, much less leaders to whom the President and nation must capitulate.
If the President and Congress cannot agree by year’s end on a balanced program of spending cuts and revenue increases to reduce the federal debt and deficit, a Draconian package automatically will take effect. That means nearly all Americans would face higher taxes, not just the 2 percent of households that earn more than $250,000 a year, whose tax rates would go up under Mr. Obama’s proposal.
It also means deep and indiscriminate across-the-board cuts in both military and domestic spending. It almost certainly means a return to recession.
Those outcomes should be avoided at almost all costs — but not surrender to a radical, intransigent Republican fringe in Congress with which voters have signaled their dissatisfaction.
Mr. Boehner speaks vaguely, as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney did during the campaign, of raising taxes on the richest Americans by closing “loopholes.”
Like Mr. Romney, the speaker won’t identify the deductions, exemptions, or credits he wants to eliminate. The tax preference for capital gains? The deduction for mortgage interest? For charitable contributions? For state and local tax payments?
During the campaign, Mr. Romney proposed — without going into detail — limiting the total dollar amount of itemized deductions that a taxpayer could claim. Does Mr. Boehner want to embrace that approach? If so, what ceiling would he impose on deductions?
Another way to raise revenue without increasing tax rates would be for the President and Congress finally to do something they should have done long ago: tax emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, at a rate per ton that would increase over time.
By forcing Americans to calculate the true costs of pollution, such a tax would fight man-made global warming, reduce dependence on imported oil, and promote alternative energy sources. The regressive effects of such a tax on poorer families would need to be alleviated, but it’s time to proceed.
President Obama must acknowledge the need to limit the growth of entitlement programs and reform the tax code as elements of deficit reduction. He ought not to be wedded to the idea of higher tax rates on the rich, if a better alternative presents itself. But one hasn’t so far, and Republicans are making no effort to offer one.
Without a change, President Obama may need to take his deficit-reduction case to the country, rather than waste time negotiating with a group of small-bore partisans who evidently can’t read election results, or realize that their bluffing doesn’t scare anyone anymore.
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